Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Continued Chronicles of Amber? Thoughts on Zelazny’s Unfinished Masterpiece

WARNING – This essay contains spoilers from the first ten books of the Chronicles of Amber, and speculates on the intentions of the late writer Roger Zelazny, had he written a third cycle.

In late 1991, Roger Zelazny published his tenth book in the Amber saga, “Prince of Chaos”. The book completed the second five-book story arc in the series, the first five addressing Prince Corwin and the second five his son Merlin. The first five, originally published between 1970 and 1978, were originally considered collectively as the ‘Chronicles of Amber’, but when the second series started the first five became known as the Corwin Cycle. The second series, known as the Merlin Cycle, were originally published between 1985 and 1991, and continues where the first series left off, but with a different focus on events and characters. Most fans of the Chronicles prefer the first series over the second, for its complex imagery and character development, but generally anyone who reads the first book of the collection will make his way through them all. And the books hold up well to re-reading and time; there is a timeless quality to the Chronicles which makes it genuinely great literature, as I see it.

Roger Zelazny passed away on June 14, 1995, from kidney failure associated with cancer. The news shocked the literary world and his fans have for the most part never found someone worthy to fill Roger’s place. This is important, because of a crucial question – would the series continue? John Gregory Betancourt began a new series of Amber stories in 2002, but they failed both critically and in sales; fans simply found the stories incomparable to Zelazny’s level. I think they failed for another reason, which I shall address in the next paragraph. There is also Roger’s clear statement that he did not want anyone else writing about Amber, which at first may seem a bit of selfish proprietorship but upon reflection I think it was a wise proscription, one his family should have heeded.

There are a number of reasons, however, why many fans believed that the Amber saga should continue. In the first place, a number of mysteries and questions were unresolved at the end of “Prince of Chaos”. But more, Roger himself began to indicate he was headed towards a new series. After “Prince of Chaos”, Zelazny wrote six short stories between 1994 and 1995, of which five were linked in a clear continuation of events following the end of “Prince of Chaos”. Those short stories introduced a new villain and chief conspirator, implied drastic changes in Merlin’s relationships with his friends, family, and even the prime forces of Order and Chaos, and reintroduced Corwin’s role in the supernatural conflict, now being acted out between Dworkin and Suhuy as agents for the Absolutes. It was certain that Zelazny planned to conclude his Chronicles with another series, once beginning where “Prince of Chaos” ended. This, by the way, is one reason Betancourt’s series failed – he set his stories as a prequel, focusing on Oberon and frankly failing to show in that character the progenitor of Eric, Corwin, Benedict, and the other heroes of the family. The new series by Betancourt also demonstrated the difficulty which any author would face in continuing the story – the Zelazny touch is singular, priceless, and frankly inimitable. Even if an author got all the facts right as Roger would have had it, the style would be impossible to mimic perfectly. It would simply sound ‘off’, no matter who attempted the venture.

So then, are we doomed to never resolve the questions or to unravel the mysteries? Perhaps not. I am hardly able to read the mind of Roger Zelazny, but I can read a map, and he laid out his stories in a way which points to certain places to go. Like Merlin’s instructions to Ghostwheel when seeking the Logrus, certain indicators are laid out which tell you a general direction to turn, and so give a hint of the picture. This writing is an attempt to consider those hints.

I’d like to start by re-examining a common contention made by fans of the saga, that the Merlin Cycle is inferior to the Corwin Cycle. What strikes me about that claim, is the question of why that should so, assuming that is correct? Some fans have claimed that Roger knew he was dying and wanted to finish his books before he died. However, that claim has problems, including the fact that Zelazny lived for four years after “Prince of Chaos” was published, and “Prince of Chaos” left a number of important questions hanging, something Roger would not do if he just wanted to wrap up the saga. Also, on a personal note, I was once told that I was likely to die from my abdominal cancer, a form known as Pseudomyxoma Peritonei. The oncologist who said so was, it turned out, not up to speed on the treatments available for my form of cancer, but at the time it did give me a sharp recognition that my life was not unlimited, and that there were certain things I had better get done soon if I expected to complete them. My point there, is that at no time did I decide to rush off a sloppy job just so I could say it was done – if I was going to die soon, the last things I did were things I wanted to get done as perfect as I could. I would want my last work to be my best, not some sloppy effort. I can hardly imagine that Roger Zelazny would care less about what he considered his final work.

If this is true, however, it brings us back to ask why the Merlin Cycle appears to be less satisfying then the Corwin Cycle. Some of that comes down to Zelazny being fifteen years older when he started the “Trumps of Doom” from when he began “Nine Princes in Amber”, but I also think it comes down to the fact that Zelazny wrote the Corwin Cycle, he knew there would be five books but was not sure whether the series would prove popular enough to continue the story. He had a lot of back-story, but could not know in advance how much demand there would be, to learn more about Grayswandir, about Dara, about Merlin and the Courts of Chaos, about the nature of the Pattern and the structure of his universe. When he started the Merlin Cycle, Zelazny knew that the market would bear not only the second series, but another after that, and I believe that from the start of the second series, Zelazny was thinking not just about books six through ten, but all the way through to the end of the saga. Look through the first ten books, and you will see any number of references or comments which point to doors for plot departures. While some of those were used, I believe, to counter any sense the reader had of omniscience in the story and to provide Roger the means to drop in plot surprises when he pleased, I also think they were there to be used in later parts of the story. Merlin’s decision to spare Corwin the first time they met in the Courts of Chaos, for example, foreshadowed Merlin’s determination to find and save his father in “Prince of Chaos”.

And that is part of the dance, as well, the matter of sensing which themes and events are meant to reflect others in the story. Certainly Zelazny pointed this out in a number of places, that there is a balance and a certain continuity to things, a literary yin/yang balance if you will. Zelazny noted, for example that the royal family of Amber was in constant chaos, while the royal family of Chaos was serene. Therefore, we do well to consider the themes and lessons we have already seen in play during the first two cycles, as they will be repeated or continue in the same manner in the third series.

The first cycle focused on Amber. The second cycle focused on Chaos. The third, then, will focus on Shadow.

The first book of each cycle featured the imprisonment of the main character. So will the third.

The final book of each cycle saw the death of a King, and a new King. So will the third.

Corwin was betrayed by a love. So was Merlin. This will happen in the third cycle as well.

Corwin depended on his magic word, Grayswandir. Merlin depended on his shadow computer construct, Ghostwheel. The protagonist of the third cycle will depend on a similar artifact specially suited to his person.

In each of the first to cycles, the hero grew through the books from a self-centered person to a duty-focused person. So too in the third cycle.

All through the books, we saw that people were not as they seemed. Carl Corey discovered he was really Prince Corwin, his buddy Ganelon turned out to be his father Oberon, Dara was Corwin’s lover and the mother of his son Merlin, but she never loved him and wanted Amber destroyed , Merlin’s best friend Luke tuned out to have attempted his murder several times, his girlfriend Julia became his nemesis Mask, and his brother Jurt, who spent his whole life trying to kill Merlin, in the end became his ally and helped him free Coral from the Pattern and the Logrus both. So moving into the last series, we should expect to not only see new characters added, but also see some surprises from the cast in place. Especially from Mandor, Fiona, and – wait for it – Bill Roth. Yep, good old “mortal” Bill, Corwin’s lawyer buddy from shadow Earth. There’s things to chew on regarding this guy, and more than a few suspicions. Consider how many times we see this guy throughout the stories. Bill Roth out-lives several major characters and turns up in all kinds of important places.

When Corwin got stabbed in “Sign of the Unicorn” and was bleeding to death, who found him and got him to a hospital? Bill Roth.

Who helps Corwin with the disposal of his house on Earth in “The Hand of Oberon”? Bill Roth.

Who wrote the terms of the Patterfall Treaty between Amber and Chaos? Bill Roth.

When Merlin decides to deal directly with whomever is trying to kill him in “Trumps of Doom”, who does he talk to besides Luke and (unknowing) Nayda? Bill Roth.

Merlin talks again with Bill Roth in “Sign of Chaos”, he even runs across Bill Roth in the Hall of Mirrors, and when Merlin looks into Suhuy’s pool in "Prince of Chaos" to consider candidates for the throne and people who are playing a role in that conflict, one of the people Merlin sees … is Bill Roth.

If Roger Zelazny had written a third series, Bill Roth would be a major surprise character, someone much different than he appeared to be all along. Some readers will remind me that Bill Roth is just a mortal human, but to that claim I would remind you that the claim came from Bill himself, and we have no proof whatsoever that Bill Roth is just what he claims. In the Merlin Cycle we discovered that Luke was not what he seemed, nor Coral, nor Julia. So Bill Roth, I strongly suspect, is a ringer.

Let’s go back to a nagging question that a lot of readers had in the Merlin Cycle: How, exactly, are we supposed to believe in Merlin as the new King of Chaos? Merlin himself admitted that he was far from qualified, yet at the end of “Prince of Chaos” it sure looks like he got the job. Why, exactly? OK, I get that Merlin is from the royal houses of both Amber and Chaos, but again, why should this impress us? Where has he shown special qualities that would explain both the Unicorn and the Serpent wanting to sign up Merlin as their figurehead?

Merlin regards himself as a dime-a-dozen sorcerer, a decent but unexceptional swordsman, and an utter neuf in matters of state and politics. So how does he get the crown? We know from “Prince of Chaos” that Merlin defeats both Dara and Mandor, and with the help of Ghostwheel he even seems to force the Logrus to accept his terms, after an earlier confrontation with the Pattern which seems to have been 90 percent luck on Merlin’s part, and a healthy assist from Luke for the rest of it. But Merlin does not accomplish this with skill or brilliant planning – he basically carries around the magic version of a handheld nuclear power plant and simply uses force until the obstacle is removed. And Merlin did not create or develop the Spikard – it was given to him! We find out from Bleys that there are nine of these rings, and it so happens that Merlin gets to carry out a second ring, which previously belonged to King Swayville and which was enchanted by Mandor and Dara in hopes of controlling Merlin. So OK, what are the odds , if you’re Mandor, say, that you come across an artifact of fantastic power, so much so that the bearer is all but unstoppable, and your thought is not only to not keep it for yourself, but hand it off to someone you plan to control, on the assumption that if things don’t work out you can still regain the upper hand? Isn’t it a lot more likely that you’d find more than one of those, so you had a power source of your own, should you need it? But of course, when Merlin dueled Mandor, he won. Odd. But I noticed something there.

Merlin mentioned that Mandor was fond of carrying around a group of small iron balls, which he used as an idiosyncratic magic aid. This is important for two reasons – one, in the short story “Hall of Mirrors”, Zelazny confirms that two of the spikards were turned into swords – Grayswandir and Werewindle, as a matter of fact. So there’s no reason that Mandor could not have transformed his spikard into three magic iron balls. And reason two, when Merlin abruptly confronts Mandor, he catches him by surprise. Mandor is led to believe that he is in control of Merlin through the spell on what he thinks is Merlin’s spikard, and in that section we never see Mandor use his magic iron balls. Guess Mandor picked a bad day to leave them at home or send them on an errand, huh?

By the way, in the short story “The Salesman’s Tale”, we find from Luke that he can summon Werewindle to him by way of a Trump. This lets us know that the spikards can be manipulated in the same way, and also oh by the way this answers a lot of questions about how Grayswandir shows up in various places seemingly on its own, such as Merlin being able to use in the land-underneath-Shadow in “Knight of Shadow”. Being able to call up artifacts on cue makes things a lot more fluid in the third cycle, hmm?

Before moving on, I also found ”The Salesman’s Tale” an important revelation on another score – Vialle’s ability for prophecy. One valid criticism of the first cycle was the limited value placed on the women in the stories, especially the Princesses of Amber. Zelazny’s discussion of Vialle’s prophetic powers is not only consistent with her legacy from Rebma, but a welcome acknowledgement of her value in her own right as a person – Queen in substance as well as name.

to be continued


Mark L said...

Absent a specific invitation by a writer to play in his or her sandbox, any continuation of a series ends up as insipid.

This is not to say that all continuations of series by others end up bad. One notable exception was Jerry Pournelle's continuation of H. Beam Piper's "Lord Kalvin" series. That is not an exception to my rule, because Piper specifically *gave* Pournelle permission to continue the series prior to Piper's death.

Piper provideds an example illustrating my point as well. "Fuzzy Bones" was written by an author unknown to Piper to capitalize on renewed popularity of Piper's "Little Fuzzy" tales in the 1980s. The cute fuzzies in that book were directly contradicted by Piper himself. Ironically, shortly after the appearance of "Fuzzy Bones" Piper's third Fuzzy novel was found and published. It was a carbon of a completed manuscript that had been rejected in the 1960s (because the publisher felt no one would want to read another Fuzzy novel). It was the first novel to spend an extensive period looking from the fuzzy perspective and was diametrically opposite to "Fuzzy Bones." (And a hell of a better story, too.)

Finishing uncompleted novels is one thing. Robert Parker did a reasonble job of that with "Poodle Springs," Raymond Chandler's unfinished Philip Marlowe novel, and Jill Paton Walsh did a good job with Dorothy Sayers's unfinished Peter Wimsey novel, "Thrones, Dominions." But the follow-ons were much, much weaker. Not necessarily bad, just not really true Marlow or Wimssey tales.

On the other hand, you can continue the Vulgar Unicorn series despite the death of one of the principal creators - Robert Asprin - because that was initiated as a collaborative work. And certainly the 1632 series could continue without Eric Flint (although "The Tangled Web - written entirely without Flint - was rather flaccid) because Flint has transformed that into a collaborative series. Ditto David Weber's Honorverse. Again though, the creators of those series invited collaboration.

Nero Wolfe books were works of genius because of Rex Stout, not Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. James Bond stories were great entertainment because of Ian Fleming, not Bond. And Amber was great because of Zelazny.

The follow-on Wolfe and Bond novels were pale imitations of the original works. I don't hold higher expectations for new Amber books. And I loved the original ten books by Zelazny -- and would cheerfully read the next ten, if they were written by Zelazny. But I am not in the mood for literary near-beer.

Sean said...

"John Gregory Betancourt began a new series of Amber stories in 2002, but they failed both critically and in sales"

I wouldn't included sales, in your argument. The books were selling tens of thousands of copies, according to bookscan, and probably would have continued if Byron Preiss hadn't been killed in a car accident, and then the rights were locked up in the bankruptcy.

Me, I prefer the first five Amber books by Zelazny. I'm not fond of the second series, or anything else that came afterwards.


Wiz-ziW said...

The Pattern is the US Constitution. It was damaged by the Courts of Chaos, aka the Supreme Court of the USA. Can the damage be repaired, do we we have to start over?

Can Ghostwheel technology, such as the internet, help -- by containing the magic of the COTUS to protect individual rights and providing automated actions?

Pure democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch, but perhaps the internet could empower "the people" in only appropriate ways -- while preserving property rights and the Pursuit of Happiness against the tyranny of the majority?

Anonymous said...

Well well. After not having read the two cycles for quite some time (as I simply couldn't find the short stories) I've finally returned to one of my favourite series. (To be honest, I've found the short stories, and decided to do a full re-read.)

And I'm blown away again. This stuff is good.

Betancourt's prequel is, well, not. Oberon is a near-godlike mythical figure, and not driven my mere human emotions. Betancourt made Oberon a shallow copy of Corwin, and it just doesn't fit. (Though I have to admit Corwin and Oberon may have had many similarities.)

I, for one, DID like the Merlin cycle. It's a roller coaster ride, with a very powerfull character who just seems to, euh... mess up things. Is it as good as the first series? Perhaps not, but it offers great potential for more and more stories.

(Which is why the Amber Diceless RPG is quite an interesting thing, as it would allow mere humans, ie. you and me, to experience some of the magic.)

Nevertheless, yes. Amber deserved to be continued, and there were too many plotholes at the end of book 10. I'm convinced Zelazny was planning at least one more book, if not indeed a whole series. As you said, he even started a few short stories, and I'm pretty sure those could have functioned as a 'bridge' to something new.

Now, after re-reading books 1 to 8, I support your opinion on Bill Roth. There's way more to the guy than meets the eye. I'm not sure he's a shapeshifter, a lost chaos king, an emperor from shadow, or anything even more exotic. He might be even human, but there's something about the guy...

Which brings me to the main subject: can _Amber_ be continued? Yes. With the right author it could. People like Timothy Zahn or Steven Brust or Joel Rosenberg might be able to do a good job. (Oh, they've written some poor stuff as well, but even Zelazny wrote some stories that didn't work for me :-))

What kind of character would it be? Think...

أبل said...

good review thanks

cacollister said...

Craig AC ... Where does The Pit "go"? Anywhere? Does it pour energy into some other existance? Is the Fountain at 4 Seasons the uncontrolled influx of some other worlds Pit? Are spikards a similar influx controlled and channeled? This simply relates to Black Hole theories and Zelazny did draw a lot not only on religions & mythos, but also Physics.

cacollister said...

PS/ the thing I really wanted to know ... what's with Corals new um eyewear? Yea Bill Roth must have more to "him" as everyone is saying. I thought about long lost brother of Oberon or Dworkin, or maybe a Ra/Ahura Mazda creator of all type, or interested party from another continuum. But of course to be as shockingly Zelazny as possible, he really must turn out to be a shapeshifting Corwins mother, mustn't he?! lol. After all he was hanging around watching over Corwin and Merlin too. I miss RZ so much

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this review and you have some really interesting ideas. I did prefer the first cycle to the second but I enjoyed the second anyway. It is upsetting that there will be no more Amber stories, as I do not think anyone else could continue the stories as they simply could not know what Roger was thinking. It wouldn't seem true to me. Anyhow, It's nice to see some people who appreciate these stories as I find them vastly under appreciated.

Unknown said...

Bill Roth...Delwin? Sand?

Palooch said...

I myself have been creating backstory & characters to add to the Amber story for my ADRPG campaign for some time now. Erick Wujcik asked some amazing questions and got more of the story out of him. He too passed away leaving the ADRPG system up in the air with the Rebma game sourcebook never printed. I have designed a similar power for Shadow in the Black Zone which is elemental in nature and could even be considered the opposite of The Fount of Power.

RZ's books are masterpieces, and JGB's books would have been better had he reread the Amber series 10 times. He may have noticed some things that would have prevented his inconsistencies in the canon of Amber lore. I too did not like how he portrayed Oberon, but did appreciate some of his additions to the possibilities of things that happened before Corwin's Story.

There are groups on Facebook that deal with many of these awesome questions and possibilities. Great food for thought.